Gifts of Hope

Radio Personalities, Volunteers Team for Christmas Cash for Kids

By Mary Thayer Haugen | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 12.19.16 – In the Studio, Lifestyles, People & Places

Like the blow-up Santas that lay limp and lifeless on the lawn, there is no magic in the jolly red-suited icon until someone “breathes” life into him. So it goes with Santa’s mission to reward children with gifts—there has to be a spark. Some of that comes with the annual Christmas Cash for Kids radio-a-thon.

Christmas Cash for Kids has been in operation since the mid-1970s, helping to provide for families in need. It started on station WZYQ, and when the station signed off the air, the program moved to WFMD-AM 930. It is now a joint effort between the station and the Salvation Army—and a whole lot of volunteers. “It started with the sponsorship of one family and has grown to the point where they handle all of the expenditures,” says Capt. Mike Michels, co-executive director of the Salvation Army of Frederick County. “The program makes a big impact on the county.”

“With WFMD doing the heavy lifting on this, it frees up our resources to do things like special holiday programs for the elderly,” Michels adds. And lift it does. Last year, Christmas Cash for Kids raised more than $140,000 and helped about 1,800 families, says Bob Miller, host of WFMD’s morning show.

A Week of Giving

The radio-a-thon always starts the first Monday after Thanksgiving and runs all week, ending on Friday evening. The on-air portion of the fundraising happens in the mornings and evenings during the time slots set aside for local programming.

During pledge week, the station is decorated with some of the toys that will be given away that season, and the public is invited to stop by with their monetary donations. There are also volunteers that come in to help answer the phones. Lee Anne Little of Woodsboro takes off a week of work each year to do just that. “It is amazing how many people call from outside the county to donate and the crazy lengths they will go to in order to get their donation in. I’ve had local people who are out of the country call in,” she says.

The donations come from everywhere. “I’ve had homeless people give me a dollar when we are on location collecting for the radio-a-thon,” Miller says. “And I’ll always remember a little girl in a pink jacket walking into the station with her piggy bank and dumping its contents on the table for us.”

That little girl was Helena Hall of Frederick. Her family was going to the station to make a donation when she was 6 years old. “My parents explained to us what we were going to do, and I decided I wanted to take my own money. I remember thinking, ‘They could use the money more than I can.’ So I ran and got my piggy bank,” she says. She has been contributing ever since.

And in fact, the infamous piggy bank is now part of the radio-a-thon. The Hall family was asked to sign it and it’s pulled out each year during the fundraiser as a mascot of sorts.

Keeping Tradition Alive

Of course, collecting money is one thing, making the best use of it is another. The job of head shopper eventually fell to Jennifer Ross of Middletown. Her husband Ron had been at the helm of WZYQ when the station was sold and eventually shut down. “He came home and told me he was losing his job,” says Ross. “Then we suddenly looked at each other with tears in our eyes and said, ‘What’s going to happen to Christmas Cash for Kids?’ We knew we had to find a new home for it.”

Ron Ross had worked with Miller at WZYQ in the past, so he made a call. The rest is history. “I donated to Christmas Cash for Kids before I ever worked in radio,” says Miller. “We [at WFMD] were honored to take over and continue the tradition. And I have to give a big thank-you to Michael Banks, our general manager, and Frank Mitchell, our program director, for allowing us to do this.”

Christmas Cash for Kids has grown and evolved into a well-oiled machine. It’s hard to know who’s responsible for that. Everyone involved is humble about the role they play, pointing fingers in every direction but their own. Countless volunteers give countless hours to the cause, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” says Jennifer Ross. “But once you get involved, you can never leave. It’s sacred.”

Perhaps that reverence is another reason why the powers that be are adamant about being good stewards of the money raised. The Salvation Army works diligently with other charitable organizations in the county to register families and create a master list of deserving recipients to ensure there’s no duplication. “There is zero overhead,” says Miller. “No one gets a salary; there are no T-shirts, no mugs—every penny goes to helping the families.”

In fact, Ross taught herself to use a spreadsheet program so she can account for every penny that’s spent. And she has found ways to stretch those pennies as far as they will go. “We have developed a great relationship with Toys-R-Us. They give us a big volume discount that increases our purchasing power,” Ross says.

She takes her responsibility as head shopper seriously. Her girls are grown, so she keeps current by researching hot toy trends and recruiting parents with kids of various ages to help shop. Every child gets a small toy, medium toy and something larger. There are no major electronic gifts like gaming systems.

Christmas Cash for Kids also provides blankets and gift cards for clothing. That gives the children the chance to pick out their own clothes, which is particularly nice for older children.

An Act of Love

The good work this program does even attracts radio personalities from other stations who stop by to lend their hand at fundraising. Those of a certain age may remember WZYQ personality “Kemosabi Joe,” who was involved with the program almost from the beginning until he moved away to take a job in Texas. He now lives and works in Salisbury, but tries to come back a couple of days each year to help out.

“Sometimes I just sit there and cry listening to the callers,” says Joe. “It’s the people who talk about how they were helped by this program when they were little and what it meant to them.

“You just never know how your contribution may be a blessing in someone’s life. It makes you realize, it’s about more than toys for kids and a few coats or a blanket,” he adds. “It’s the love you show to your neighbors. It’s an act of love that stays with those kids forever.”